Music for the Queen of Heaven : setting the Assumption psalms

Two services, two psalms

Because it’s such a big feast, the Assumption has two psalms, one for the Vigil Mass (night before), one for on the day, and they are very different. The first one is Psalm 131/132 and the second Psalm 44/45.

Vigil Psalm : The Ark of the Covenant

It takes a minute to work out the relevance of the Psalm 131/132, because it is overtly about the Ark in which Moses placed the stone tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments.  It explains that ‘we’ have found the Ark, we are bringing it to God’s house, everyone should rejoice, and above all we rejoice because God has chosen Zion, our holy mountain, as the place where he chooses to live from now on.  Practically speaking, the Response is very long (two lines-worth instead of the usual one); and in the first verse there are proper names, which are always slightly tricky unless they are well-known.  What the US translation calls ‘Jaar’ is called ‘Yearim’ in the other versions, so you have to decide how many syllables to give it.  The other proper name is Ephrathah, which is at least consistent, if difficult to pronounce.  I gave Ja-ar two syllables, because they must have doubled the ‘a’ for a reason, and three for ‘Ye-a-rim’ because if it’s pronounced like that, you can see why it might mutate to Ja-ar.  But I’m always happy to be corrected on this, and to change the settings for later years if anyone knows better than I do!

Our Lady as the Ark

So the Ark which we are so happy to greet is here representing the mother of God, as she too ‘contains’ the Word of God.  It makes sense, though I feel a little uncomfortable, as though I am thinking of Mary as a walking box rather than as an individual. However, the psalm is there as a reaction to the first reading (David leading the Ark into a special tent pitched for it, so that God can dwell with his people).  It is a great psalm, which we reserve for this feast, and it has beautiful shape and movement.  The direct speech in the first verse is balanced by God’s own words in the third verse, and the middle verse has a wonderful vision of the Church with the priests ‘clothed in holiness’ and the faithful all shouting out their joy.  As a nomad by marriage rather than by conviction, I especially like God’s words in the last two lines : ‘This is my resting-place for ever, /here have I chosen to live’, and the rhythm of that was what controlled the verse tune for me (UK/OZ/CAN) and meant that it came out with a swing as 3/4 instead of the balanced 4/4 for the US version.

The Vigil Gospel

On the whole the Vigil readings are fairly calm and low-key, culminating in the slightly odd choice of Gospel (when you think that this is the feast of the Assumption), where Jesus says that people who hear the word of God and obey it are more blessed than the person who just happened to be his mother (Luke 11,27-28).  I feel it is significant that his mother is not actually present at this encounter (it comes from a period when Jesus is on tour with the disciples), and Jesus is making a point about the obedience of faith rather than anything else.  One of our sons does stand-up comedy, and he talks about a stock character called ‘my Dad’, who is not actually anything to do with his father (or so he says).  The point of what Jesus says is for those who are listening, it’s not actually anything about Our Lady.

The Assumption : Day Mass

Now let’s move on to the Mass on the day itself, and the picture is wholly different.  Here the readings are gorgeous, opulent, exotic, mythic, terrifying, transcendental, and I could go on.  The heavens are open, showing the divine Holy of holies (think how the earthly one was always kept screened and only seen by only the High Priest only once a year), there is a ‘huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns’ (I’ve always thought that the fact the numbers don’t match only adds to the overwhelmingness of the spectacle), there is a woman ‘clothed with the sun’ (how?), standing on the moon (always shown as a sickle moon, so she’s not stable), crowned with twelve stars (think of the scale here)…and she’s in labour, and not just in labour but at the crowning moment (in all senses).  The dragon is waiting to seize and gobble up the baby, but God is also waiting (as he does for Mary’s assent, at the Annunciation), and he rescues them both as soon as the baby is born.  And that’s only the first reading.

Day Psalm : the Queen takes her place

We respond to this first reading with Psalm 44/45, which describes a queen dressed in gorgeous robes leaving her father’s house and coming to take her place on the king’s right hand.   She is beautiful, arrayed in gold and jewels, and she fits with the woman in the first reading.  And we are celebrating the Assumption of Mary into heaven, so that is who the Queen is: she leaves the earth and takes her place as Queen of heaven.

I think of this as ‘the Klimt psalm’ because it is so rich and exotic, and I wanted to make the music a little strange, without putting the congregation off.  The verses are short and irregular, and the different countries divide them up differently : the US version has four verses, which are basically two (more or less) matching pairs, where the other Lectionaries (UK and OZ) have standardised the lines into two verses of four lines.  The CAN one is completely sui generis : it lulls you into a false sense of security because it starts the same as UK and OZ but then branches out into five lines for v2 (including three which no-one else has included), and a third verse of only two lines (second half of v2 for UK and OZ).  This turned out to be completely un-compactable, sorry about that; you will need someone to help turn the pages.  So all the settings had to be different.

The music isn’t difficult, just strange and slightly alien (I hope), emphasizing the exotic.  Where I’m usually wishing for trumpets, double basses, saxophones or drums, in this psalm I’m trying to suggest a gong or cymbals, maybe gamelan or those little Indian finger-cymbals. It’s modal, to keep everyone slightly on the alert and aware.  In the whole idea of the Assumption, there is meant to be a creative mismatch between Mary, the woman from Galilee who accepted a job which God offered to her, and the mighty Queen, and I’m trying to pick up the strangeness of the whole thing.

The feast of the Assumption

I have to admit that I have problems with the two Mary feasts of the Assumption and (even more) the Immaculate Conception, because they seem to me to deny what they are meant to stand for.  If Jesus was not born of a real human being, the Incarnation is not real; if Mary was set apart by the Immaculate Conception from birth (not to mention conceived by a kiss between Joachim and Anna in some versions of her life), then she is not a real human being.  For the Annunciation and the Incarnation to work, Mary needs to be an ordinary person, a person like us. Similarly, if Mary was old and full of years and carried up to heaven in that old, maybe ill body (we have to die of something, even if it’s just anno Domini), why is she not allowed the new body which all the rest of us will have?  I know this is very heretical, and no-one will speak to me again, but I have to say I rather like the (not just) Eastern tradition of the Dormition, where Christ comes down to the body of his mother lying on her deathbed and takes her soul, usually pictured as a little girl, sometimes small enough to sit on Christ’s hand,  back up to heaven with him, instead of the mature woman’s body just disappearing.

The Assumption means taking one’s correct place

It seems to me that the feast of the Assumption is actually the celebration of something slightly different.  It is the moment when a human being becomes fully what God created him to be.  It is Tennyson’s moment of crossing the bar, or Hopkins’ moment when the poor potsherd becomes immortal diamond.

God made us to be like him.  That is actually a terrifying statement to make.  We find it difficult to see God in ourselves, and even more so to see him in the other people walking around with us.  But if we could see what God can see, if we can come to fulfil the potential he has given us, we are genuinely a royal priesthood, a kingly nation, a nation made up of kings and queens, all of us.

The Gospel for the Day Mass is the section of Luke’s Gospel that contains Our Lady’s Magnificat (chapter 1, vv 39 to 56), the only piece of extended speech of hers that we have.  This is her human apotheosis, when she grasps God’s plan being fulfilled through all history and takes her place in it willingly and joyfully.  Indeed from this day forward all generations have called her blessed.  Her suffering in later life must have been terrible, but at least she understood that God’s mercy would prevail.

At the end of her life, the Assumption is a way to explain what happens when a simple human being fulfils God’s plan and realises her potential.  It seems strange and exotic to us, we find it difficult even to put it into words, but it is what we are born for; and at least we can appreciate its beauty even now.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Waiting, hoping and trusting : the same but different

Subtleties of translation

Just as translating something gives you a rare chance to get inside the text and really understand it, writing a tune for a line of text makes you chew it over far more carefully than a quick reading does.  This is even truer of the Alleluia verses than the psalms, because they are mostly so short. The functional problems tend to be getting the balance right, especially as you aren’t allowed to repeat anything (except the word ‘Alleluia’, obviously). But precisely because they are so short, you have to focus on the exact rhythm of the words, and the meaning, and the way the two interconnect.

Sometimes the different country versions are clearly dealing with the same idea, sometimes they decide to stress different aspects of it. The words for the Alleluia verse this week were on the one hand simple, even monosyllabic, but on the other hand so different in the choices which had been made, that I was intrigued.

Hope, trust, wait ; one verse, four versions

The only easy way to compare is to set them all out on the page, so bear with me.  I’ll leave out the Alleluias.

CAN : I wait for the Lord; I hope in his word.

OZ :    I hope in the Lord, I trust in his word.

UK :   My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.

US :    I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for his word.

The original Psalm verse

The origin for all these Alleluia verses is Psalm 129/130, v 5, so let’s have a look at some translations of that. Grail version : My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.  Revised Grail : I long for you, O Lord, my soul longs for his word (awkward shift from second to third person there, but that’s the newest translation, so presumably the most accurate).   King James : I look for the Lord, my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.  Jerusalem : I wait for God, my soul waits for him, I rely on his promise. Scottish metrical psalms, for the purposes of comparison : I wait for God, my soul doth wait, my hope is in his word.

Back to the (differing) Alleluia verses

So full marks to the British for keeping as close as possible to the original psalm version, and let’s talk about that one first, after a pause while I clear away all the books I have just looked everything up in.  The two first striking things are that it is ‘my soul’ rather than ‘I’, and that the verb is an ongoing present tense. ‘My soul’ for ‘I’ is a fairly common Latin circumlocution (we’ve recently had it put back into the prayer just before Communion in the new translation…’and my soul shall be healed’, where it is definitely meant to mean the same as ‘I’, which was the previous version), so that’s easy, though I must say I like the directness of the ‘I’ that everyone else has gone for.  But that present continuous is interesting, because you get a sense almost of patient impatience, as if we are saying to God, ‘Here I am, look at me actively waiting, your move now’, where the simple ‘I wait’, though it technically means the same, is more a description of a state.

Commas and semi-colons

And look at the punctuation.  The UK and OZ versions describe two simultaneous aspects : I hope, and at the same time I trust;  I am waiting, and at the same time I count on the Lord’s word. I accept ‘count on’ as equivalent to ‘trust’, but because what divides the two phrases is a simple comma, they are in balance, not causally related (I am feeling terrible nerdy here, I hope someone else is as interested in this as I am!).

In the US and CAN versions, we have a semi-colon which indicates a different relationship between the clauses.  The CAN one seems to me to be causal : I wait for the Lord [because] I hope in his word;  whereas the US one is much more limited, even repetitive, but intensified : I wait for the Lord; yes, my deepest self is waiting for what he has to say.  That connects neatly with God’s instruction last week at the Transfiguration to listen.

Waiting leads to hoping leads to trusting?

What first set me thinking about this was the way that the OZ and CAN verses almost sound like two stages of one process.  First (CAN) I wait, [because] I hope; then (OZ) I hope, [while] I am trusting.  You can do the same thing with US and UK : first (US) I wait for the Lord, [yes really] my soul waits for his word; then (UK) my soul is waiting for the Lord [while] I am counting on his word.  But where in the process do we start? Are these sequential? Do we wait because we believe, or because we hope? Do we hope because we believe, and so we wait?  Is trusting the same as hoping or believing?

Waiting, hoping and trusting : similar but not quite the same, and one day I’m clearly going to have to learn Hebrew and probably Ancient Greek as well (Latin I can manage).  Failing an examination of the original words, I went off to have a look at Spe salvi, as being the most recent official teaching about hope.  And I was lucky, because it was illuminating.  ‘Faith is Hope’ is the title of the second section. ‘The one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life’ (SS2). Aquinas is quoted as saying that this faith is how eternal life takes root in us (SS7), but where I really struck gold was in section 9, where it explains that the word St Paul uses for this is hypomone, normally translated as patience, perseverance, constancy (so there is my ‘wait’) and goes on to say, ‘this word was used expressly for the expectation of God […] on the basis of the certainty of the Covenant’ (and there is my ‘trust in his word’), summarising this as’a lived hope, a life based on the certainty of hope’ (SS9).

The perfection of hope and trust

So it isn’t sequential, more relational and even dynamic, like God himself (I knew the Greek would be helpful).  The waiting we are talking about here is active, like Advent, like pregnancy, as I’ve mentioned before.  And then in the last section of Spe salvi, there is a meditation on Our Lady as the symbol of hope, not just Stella maris but also the star of hope.  There we can see someone hoping, believing, waiting and trusting all in one, like any mother only on a cosmic scale.

Actually writing the tunes

The emphasis throughout then is on patient trust-filled waiting, so when I was writing the tunes I concentrated on not resolving the wait, but allowing a sort of conscious patience to support the meaning.  All the settings came out differently, which I felt was appropriate in the circumstances.  Luckily I had forgotten (or I would have been totally intimidated) that Bach set this, as part of one of the cantatas, and you can hear how he keeps the waiting hanging over several bars.  My other favourite example of musical ‘waiting on the Lord’ (a recurrent psalm theme) is Mendelssohn Ps 39/40, but there the waiting is resolved in rescue, so the feel is different.  The waiting is in the past tense.   Do hope and trust figure?   Sometimes the words just say ‘he answered my cry’ or ‘he heard my complaint’, but the translation I sang with my sister ends with the words ‘he inclined unto me, who put my hope and trust in him’.  Not a faithful translation, but full of the same hope and trust as this week’s Alleluia verse.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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